11/08/2013 3:10PM

Jay Hovdey: Finding the right mix of racing and show


It is never too late to do a Breeders’ Cup post mortem, but the body is getting a little cold. So, before the sport moves on to the wonders of Aqueduct in November and the Last Days of Hollywood Park, here are a few lasting impressions.

◗ The idea of a permanent or semi-permanent home for the Breeders’ Cup has been on the boil for some time. Santa Anita Park – which will host its third in a row in 2014 – is usually at the center of the conversation as traditional venues either disappear (Gulfstream Park, Hollywood Park), become complicated (Churchill Downs), or associated with the consequences of climate change (Belmont Park).

Keith Brackpool, now running Santa Anita for the Stronach Group, has lobbied hard for Santa Anita to be synonymous with Breeders’ Cup, even from the days when he was chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. He admitted, though, that there are concessions required.

“The host track and Breeders’ Cup are effectively partners,” Brackpool said. “But it’s their event, not our event, although on some things you’re a full partner and on some you’re more like a lease-holder.

“Obviously, I only need one guest to have an unfortunate experience with one person who was not familiar with what they should have been familiar with, and that’s going to reflect upon Santa Anita,” Brackpool added. “The flip side is that if something that happens to a ticket-holder reflects is taken to reflect on Breeders’ Cup, perhaps it should have reflected as much on Santa Anita.”

Brackpool’s job now is to tap into whatever positives are derived from Santa Anita’s ongoing Breeders’ Cup connection.

“You can’t have Breeders’ Cup Championship Saturday every Saturday,” he said. “What we have to do is smooth out the peaks and valleys.”

◗ If the Breeders’ Cup is going to continue to bill itself as an international event, why not flaunt it? True, there were a few representations of countries other than the USofA in the Santa Anita décor, and when the foreigners won, and won, and kept on winning a proper post-race big deal was made. But there seemed to be nothing built into the mix.

For instance, what happened to the inspiring introduction of the jockeys at the top of the program that made past Breeders’ Cups so memorable? There was literally nothing quite like the sight in 2001 at Belmont Park of the riders in front of the packed stands, each afforded their individual round of applause while carrying the flags of their own homelands.

◗ The Breeders’ Cup got it wrong in 2012, cordoning off the Santa Anita viewing areas for the saddling paddock and half of the walking ring for a select group of high-end ticket-holders and VIPs.

They got it right this year by shaving that restricted space in half and returning areas of important access to the vast majority of fans who deserve to see their heroes up close. There was still a VIP yard – sparsely populated on Day 1 but busy on Day 2 – to remind everyone that the class system is still alive and well in the Thoroughbred world.

◗ Chrysler, Dodge, Buick, Toyota, Mobil, Sears, Alberto-Culver, Emirates Airlines, NetJets, Sentient, Budweiser – corporate heavyweights, each and every one. They have all spent time as sponsors at various levels of the Breeders’ Cup and its events.

None of them, at least as far as we know, required as payback for the Breeders’ Cup to shift the spotlight away from its prime directive, which was from the very beginning the promotion of Thoroughbred racing to the broader sports public. This changed in 2013 with the presentation of the $150,000 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup Invitational for the Arabian breed at the end of Day 1, at the behest of the Emirates Equestrian Federation, which put up the money.

The extent of the budding relationship between Breeders’ Cup and the EEF has yet to be revealed, and perhaps the shoehorning of another breed into the Breeders’ Cup pageant was a small price to pay for what they got. What the fans got was 11 of the earnest little horses, tails erect, straining to negotiate the challenging Friday main track as twilight fell and strung out over nearly a furlong at the finish. The runaway winner, 7-year-old So Big Is Better, pulled up lame and was vanned off, leaving a sour taste at the end of a day that should have been a celebration of Distaff winner Beholder and the four other winners of Breeders’ Cup events.

Hopefully, Breeders’ Cup management will find another way to satisfy its commitment to this new, promising sponsor/partner in the future without selling off a piece of its signature event. Heck, I’m all for making the Thursday before the Breeders’ Cup an all-breeds showcase day of equestrian delights. Bring on the Arabs, the Appys, the mules, and the Quarter Horses, then set up a few hurdles on the outside of the turf course for those guys as well. Now that would be a day to remember.